Kocharian Interview: President Sees Growth After Shootout Shock

YEREVAN (Reuters)–Armenian President Robert Kocharian said on December 21his country’s economy was finally mending after the deep shock of a 1999 attack on parliament in which his prime minister and other officials were gunned down.

In a wide-ranging interview with Reuters–Kocharian also said he could meet Azeri President Haydar Aliyev in the first quarter of next year on their joint border to discuss the disputed enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh.

Kocharian also spoke out against NATO enlargement in the tinderbox Caucasus region.

Armenia was plunged into a political and economic crisis it could ill-afford in October last year when gunmen led by a radical nationalist burst into parliament and shot dead eight people.

The victims included the speaker–Karen Demirchyan–and Prime Minister Vazgen Sarksyan–both charismatic and influential figures in the turbulent world of Armenian politics.

“It was a blow–and a very heavy one,” said Kocharyan.

“The consequences for the country were acute and lasted a long time. In this context–if you compare the economy up to Maythis year there was a certain stagnation–a drop in production.It was only from May onwards that the consequences started to be overcome.”

Kocharyan–46–a former Nagorno-Karabakh leader who was elected in 1998–said GDP growth was likely to be about five percent this year. It would have been even higher without the severe drought which struck the region this past summer.

“Without doubt growth next year will be significantly more than this year,” he said. Eight percent would be a minimum estimate and foreign investment would be a key factor–he added. SIGNIFICANT GROWTH Armenia is one of the poorest countries in the former Soviet Union with an annual per capita income of about $600.

It also has a rich history-the country adopted Christianity before Rome and is celebrating the 1,700th anniversary of that conversion next year. Kocharian said the anniversary-related tourism–fresh credits or gran’s from donors and a World Bank-sponsored investment forum in New York in May–could all make 2001 a better year for Armenia. A foreign investors’ council will soon be set up to discuss problems–he said.

Economic experts say Armenia needs to do more to improve the business climate by untangling rules–speeding up privatisation and taking a stronger stand on corruption and Soviet-style bureacracy. Kocharian also listed some of these points–and said political stability was a crucial element in the equation.

He agreed the Nagorno-Karabakh problem hampered economic growth potential but said the country and businesses have adapted to the Turkish and Azeri blockades that limit export routes.

“More attention is starting to be given to industries which do not rely on transport to such a degree,” he said–citing the high-tech sector and diamond cutting.

Despite sporadic skirmishes–a ceasefire has held in Nagorno-Karabakh since 1994 following six years of fighting in which 35,000 people died. CAUTIOUS ON KARABAKH PEACE Kocharyan was cautious about the prospects for a permanent solution: “It’s a thankless task to make predictions–in particular on solving the Nagorno-Karabakh question.”

“Too optimistic statemen’s from leaders raise excessive expectations in society here–in Azerbaijan and Karabakh,” he said.

The Armenian leader said he would continue to meet Aliyev–probably in Strasbourg in January–if both countries jointly enter the Council of Europe–which was set up in 1949 as a club of western European democracies but has ballooned since the fall of communism a decade ago.

But a separate bilateral meeting could take place on the border between the two states–he said–noting that the two presidents met under similar circumstances last year.

“We have agreed on possible one-to-one meetings,” he said. “I think such a meeting may be possible at the end of winter or the beginning of spring.”

On NATO–he said Armenia would step up cooperation with the alliance but does not envisage entry talks.

He cautioned against the appearance of “new military components”-a veiled reference to possible NATO bases in neighbouring Georgia or Azerbaijan–which have been more enthusiastic about the alliance. "One needs to be extremely careful,” he said–adding there could otherwise be a new arms race in the region. Armenia tends to be more pro-Russia than other states in the Caucasus.

On the decision by the U.S. Congress to drop a vote on labelling as genocide the killing 85 years ago of Armenia’s by Turks–Kocharian said the decision had been linked to tensions in the Middle East and the subject would not go away.

Armenia’s say 1.5 million of their compatriots were murdered by Ottoman troops in 1915. Turkey denies this–saying both sides suffered during partisan fighting as the Ottoman empire collapsed.

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